A Beast of a Show

Karin Clarke Gallery unleashes wild things in Animal Collective

‘Squirrel’ by Matthew Dennison

The strangely haunted animals of Portland artist Matthew Dennison will cavort among a wild menagerie on display at Eugene’s Karin Clarke Gallery in a group show of animal art that opens Wednesday, March 3, and runs through April 10.

This will be the first show in Eugene of work by the popular Portland painter, who is known for his fanciful and slightly creepy depictions of animals and their interactions with people.

Animal Collective will also include work by Tacoma, Washington, printer and painter Marit Berg, making her debut showing at the gallery, alongside work by such local artists and gallery regulars as Tallmadge Doyle, Robert Schlegel, Adam Grosowsky, Betsy Wolfston and the late Rick Bartow and Tom Blodgett. The show includes paintings, etchings, drawings and mixed-media work. 

Dennison has been an animal lover his whole life, and is usually accompanied, indoors and out, by his black and tan collie, Hamish.

He creates large oil paintings of animals using an unusual technique, manipulating the paint on the canvas with his gloved hands, rags and masking tape as much as with conventional brushes.

While he’s not quite what you’d call a painter of nature, his dreamy images are informed by a love of actual animals, both domestic and in the wild. “I’ve always had animals,” he says in a phone interview. “I would sneak animals into my bedroom when I was a child. One time I snuck a Quaker parrot into my bedroom. I’ve always had a connection with animals. They’re another conduit to who we are, and to the planet.”

These days he immerses himself in nature whenever he can, walking or kayaking near a house that he and his wife, Helen O’Brien, bought in Manzanita as a coastal retreat from the city.

Like many artists, Dennison learned to draw at an early age. His father was more of a sports fan than an art aficionado, but his mother loved art and bought him a box of Grumbacher paints when he was 12. Dennison says he began painting right away, turning the family basement into his studio.

At Portland’s now closed Marshall High School, he learned more about painting at the school’s Renaissance Arts Academy, but once he graduated, his father expected him to get a job. He continued his studies briefly at the Portland Museum School, later the Pacific Northwest College of Art, but couldn’t afford the tuition and left after one term.

Soon, though, he began exhibiting and selling work in Portland galleries, and is now represented by the Charles Froelick Gallery in Portland’s Pearl District.

At 59, Dennison still draws daily, in what has become a ritual for him, along with writing poetry. His pen on ink drawings are often impossible depictions of people, houses and animals. “The drawings are part of my daily ritual to document what I experience,” he says, “a way of visual writing.” He regards drawing as essential to his art, though when he creates a painting, it usually evolves as in the process of painting, rather than from an underdrawing.

He also makes sculpture. “Carving is an extension of my painting and drawing,” he says. “One medium feeds the other. I see it as another way to see the work holistically that one creates.”

Dennison is also fascinated by vintage wooden dollhouses, and has two dozen of them from the first half of the 20th century at his home. “I get energy from my collections of houses and vintage toys and figures,” he says. “I use my collections as a case history of the recent past, a history of the human experience and culture.”

Like many artists, he has helped support himself with a day job, as a court reporter producing transcripts at the federal courthouse. With the pandemic shutdowns, though, court reporting evaporated. But, somewhat to his surprise, his work has continued to sell well and get good response from the public.

Also to his surprise, he’s even made online sales through virtual exhibitions during the pandemic. “I’m kind of a dinosaur in that I was thinking like, ‘Oh, noone’s going to buy anything online.’ And yet they do both,” he says.

Dennison’s canvases generally range up to four by four feet in size or larger; the 12 works he is showing in Eugene are smaller, 12 by 12 inches or slightly larger. They include intimate head-and-shoulders portraits of (mostly) animals seen in the Northwest: a squirrel, a rabbit, a fox, a bull elk, a flicker, a coyote, a deer, a red crossbill — he likes birds, too — a blue jay, a barred owl and a hummingbird.

Animal Collective runs March 3 through April 10 at the Karin Clarke Gallery, 760 Willamette Street. Hours are noon to 5:30 pm Wednesday through Friday and 10 am to 4 pm Saturday, as well as by appointment at KClarkeGallery@mindspring.com or 541-684-7963. Masks required.